Visit these time-related spots in Greenwich and discover how time-keeping, astronomy, global exploration and world communications are all intricately linked.
Take time to stand astride the world-famous Prime Meridian, watch the iconic Time Ball drop, set your watch to the first public clock to show GMT, and admire John Harrison's intricate timepieces in the Royal Observatory. All have been instrumental for the world as we know it today.
Stand astride the Prime Meridian Line
Greenwich is the historic home of the Prime Meridian Line – Longitude 0º. It has served as the reference line for Greenwich Mean Time since (GMT) since 1884. Stand astride the line – with a foot in each hemisphere – to take in the wonder of the solar system, time-keeping and our globalised world while enjoying spectacular views of the City of London and the Thames. Or visit after-dark to see the symbolic green laser that beams out northwards along the Meridian Line.
It’s easy to take the standardised time system for granted in our globalised world, but it’s actually a relatively new development. Before the 1850s, precision time-keeping was only really a concern to astronomers and sailors and there were no national or international conventions on how time should be measured or when the day would begin and end.
With the vast expansion of the railway and communications networks, the worldwide need for an international time standard became imperative, and Greenwich was chosen as the centre for world time.
Watch the Time Ball drop at Flamsteed House
The bright red Time Ball on top of Flamsteed House – the oldest of the Royal Observatory buildings – is one of the world's earliest public time signals. Created in 1833, it was used to distribute time to ships on the Thames and to many Londoners. Still in operation today, it’s a fascinating reminder of the drive towards a standardised time system for Great Britain and then the world.
Stand outside Flamsteed House on any day of the week to watch the Time Ball rising halfway up its mast at 12.55pm. At 12.58pm it rises all the way to the top. At 1pm exactly, the ball falls, providing a time signal to anyone who happens to be looking. Please note: the time ball will not operate if the weather is too windy.
Set your watch to the Shepherd gate clock
Installed at the gates to the Royal Observatory, the iconic Shepherd gate clock was the first clock ever to show Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) directly to the public. Set your watch to the clock and ponder what it was like before time became standardised.
The clock is a ‘slave dial’ connected to the Shepherd master clock. This was once the heart of Britain's time-distribution system, which sent the time by telegraph wire to London, Edinburgh, Dublin and many other cities, and, from 1866, to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts via the new transatlantic submarine cable. In terms of the distribution of accurate time into everyday life, it’s one of the most important clocks ever made.
When timekeeping first became standardised, some people in London made businesses from it. The best known example is Ruth Belville, known as the Greenwich Time Lady. Belville’s father, John Henry Belville, worked at the Royal Observatory and set his watch to GMT there every morning. The family would then ‘sell’ the time to clients who subscribed to their service by setting their clocks for them.
Admire John Harrison’s timekeepers at the Royal Observatory
Did you know that the history of timekeeping and navigation are intricately linked? Pay a visit to John Harrison's 18th-century precision timepieces, H1, H2, H3 and H4 – on display in the Royal Observatory – to bring this thought tick-tocking into life.
The carpenter-turned-clockmaker cracked a problem that had baffled astronomers and mathematicians for centuries. His portable inventions revolutionised maritime exploration and trade by allowing ships to determine longitude at sea, which drastically reduced the risk of getting lost.